Writing to Live: On Finding Strength While Watching Ferguson

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Whitney Battle-Baptiste as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Whitney is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, and is a historical archaeologist specializing in race, gender, and cultural landscapes. She is the author of Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), and of articles on slavery in the southern USA including “Sweepin’ Spirits: Power and Transformation on the Plantation Landscape.”  Her latest research is at the Millars Plantation on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.)

I am a writer.

This simple statement is a recent revelation. Although I am a scholar who reads and interprets, thinks critically about theory and teaches many aspects of writing, those actions have never made me a writer. Claiming “writer” was never something I thought about. The strength I pulled from writing was from reading the words of others, not writing my own. As a child, books kept me grounded and helped me to imagine. As I matured, books became a source of the familiar, tools I used to orient myself and keep connected after I left home. I was born in the early 1970s, on the island of Manhattan, and grew up in the shadows of tall buildings with concrete at my feet. I read about survival, never wrote about it. I was one of those folks who could never maintain a journal for more than a week. I always leaned on the strength of others to work through life’s ups and downs. These words were always healing, grounding, necessary for survival.

In the early years of graduate school, I felt lost and out of place. I was far from home physically and mentally. I was leaning on the words of others again. Yet, I saw the opportunity to begin to weave my own history into my scholarship, probably a reason why I chose anthropology. Today, I use words to help me understand the world around me, the cyclical rhythm of time and space. I now know the difference between the words of others and the words I pull together, they have become my method of healing and grounding myself.

I am a writer even when the words escape me.

Recently, I have not been able to pull my words together, for they don’t come very easily. Making sense of the world around me is getting more complicated. When I search for the healing properties words held in the past, I only find pain, hurt and sorrow. I sense a disconnect between my identity as scholar and my identity as writer. As an archaeologist, my scholarship encompasses the material aspects of race, gender, and class within the fluid boundaries of the African Diaspora. My work is settled firmly in the past, yet these days, my thoughts are stuck in current moments of injustice, racism, and death. The murders of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, and countless others were making my research feel hollow. And I knew I was due to contribute a blog post about writing. I was paralyzed because I could not shake this hollow feeling. As I watched the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri through social media, I began to understand why I felt disjointed. Life is connected to our scholarship, that is why I am a writer.

I write about issues of race, gender and class in the United States and parts of the Caribbean. I teach about slavery and colonialism, racism and the realities of oppression throughout the world. And when one thinks globally, it is hard not to see the connection between the wars abroad and the wars at home. As I watched the militarization of a place like Ferguson, I turned to my father, a veteran who toured during the post-Korean conflict to shed some light on how this could happen here. I could not believe that even as someone who grew up in a place where we could not trust law enforcement, I had never seen it like that, so obvious and so transparent. I felt traumatized, but in a different way. The conversations with my father helped me to think more critically about how I study and teach about race and gender and the lived experiences of people “on the ground.” Why was I surprised that I was looking at full-on military accessories to combat unrest and dissent on the streets of Ferguson? Why was I surprised that, according to my brother, a veteran of Desert Storm, the spoils of war had made it into the vaults of a local police station? For there are many people all around us who live with the wars they left behind and keep these memories close to their chests. I had to fill the emptiness in order to write, so I looked to the people close to me to help make sense of it all. You see, almost every man in my family has been in the military. I felt as if I was seeing the wars come home, as my father and brother helped me to find those missing words. I was able to pull strength from their words in order to reconnect my multiple identities. The writer and the scholar, or maybe the scholar-writer within.

I learned more than I expected from these two men. I began to think differently about race and trauma from the men in my family and I learned just how close the affects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were to me. These conversations made me understand why Ferguson affected me so deeply. For when PTSD and race come together, a different story emerges. It also cut deeper because I now have two sons of my own to raise in this country that is so committed to violence. I am also able to expand my understanding of the intersection of racism, gender, trauma and pain through their eyes and words. The work of a writer is hard at times. But when you pull those words together perhaps, in some small way, they can be used to heal, ground and recuperate yourself and others. Thank you to my father and my brother, you helped me to fill the emptiness and find the words again.

I write to understand. I write to heal. I write to teach. I write to live.

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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

3 thoughts on “Writing to Live: On Finding Strength While Watching Ferguson

  1. A deeply moving piece of writing. From a personal perspective, I am particularly impressed by how you write about your father and brother and their military experience. Talk about a topic that gets erased when we fall back on the blanket condemnation of terms like “racism.” Touches me particularly deeply because I both opposed and avoided the Vietnam War then had a daughter who grew up, went to Annapolis, and became a Navy helicopter pilot with two combat tours in the Middle East. More search and rescue than combat I can say with relief, but. . . . .

    I wonder how many anthropologists who theorize about the militarization of police in the USA are even aware of the Power Doctrine, formulated by a black man, former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Reacting to his own Vietnam experience and the view, widespread in the military, that attempts to use only measured amounts of force had lost the war, Power formulated the doctrine that now bears his name: Force should only be used if it is overwhelming force, certain to crush any resistance it faces. That doctrine has spread from the military to the police, partly because so many police are former military, partly because supplying the police with military-style hardware increases defense industry sales. All this has occurred in a context where, because of the abolition of the draft, veterans are increasingly seen as a separate caste, Darth Vader’s storm troopers instead of local heroes who stepped up to put themselves in harm’s way to defend their country. The resulting cycle of increasing isolation of those who employ force from the civilian population combined with increasingly heavy armament, justified in part by the accessibility of heavy fire power to all supported by the NRA and the need to be able to combat heavily armed criminals, has accelerated the cycle of death and destruction.

    Racism is certainly part of the problem. Critique that stops there and finds no common ground for social action may also be part of the problem.

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